Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Step by Step, Inch by Inch

I was never a huge Three Stooges fan, but as a kid I’d catch a few minutes from time to time.  (I’m told that the ability to tolerate the Stooges is only carried on the Y chromosome.  It may or may not be true, but I’ve never seen a shred of counterevidence.)  They had a recurring bit in which one of them -- I want to say Curly, but don’t quote me -- would suddenly start intoning ominously “slowly I turned...step by step...inch by inch.”  It was obviously a riff on something, though I never did find out what.  

I was reminded of that in reading about the changes to the GED coming in January.  We’re turning slowly, step by step, in an ominous direction.

Not only will the new GED be more expensive and more “rigorous,” but it will even move from a test to an “experience.”  (I think the next stage is a “happening.”)  The idea, I’m guessing, is to improve the subsequent success rates of students who pass it by making it harder to pass and thereby skimming the cream.  

The change comes on the heels of a few other changes.  Last year the Feds shortened student Pell grant eligibility from 18 semesters to 12, which can have implications for students with remedial or ESL needs.  It simultaneously banned the “ability to benefit” exemption, by which students who didn’t have a high school diploma or a GED could take a placement test which, assuming they scored at or above a certain level, would demonstrate that they had the “ability to benefit” from higher education.  

Although each change was made independently of the others, the logic as a whole is clear: students who show up without high school diplomas will have a much harder time getting any sort of credit-bearing education.  And if they do, they’d better hurry up about it.

The cost issue isn’t trivial; earlier this week, one of my deans mentioned in passing that she had spent part of the previous day working with a student who hadn’t eaten in two days.  We’ve had students who lived in their cars.  If you’re that close to the line, a sudden doubling of a test cost is a very real thing.

My friend Tressie McMillan Cottom noted on Twitter recently that the for-profits figured this out some time ago, and use the dynamic to their advantage.  Why, she asked, would a strapped student choose a more expensive school over a cheaper one with a better reputation?  Because the more expensive one back-loads the costs onto loans that are so large as to seem imaginary, while community colleges throw fifty and hundred dollar fees at students upfront.  If you’re struggling to eat, a ten thousand dollar loan due in several years is pretty abstract, but a fifty dollar test fee is grocery money.  And doubling that fee may move it from a stretch to a dream.

Slowly we turn, step by step, inch by inch, away from the students who need us most.

It’s a difficult dynamic to change, especially at the campus level.  As colleges, we don’t have the option of doing what some K-12 districts are doing, and just providing food to everybody.  (For the record, I think that what those districts are doing is a fantastic idea.)  K-12 schools are “total institutions,” and they can exercise that kind of control.  Community colleges aren’t, and can’t.  But the need is still there, even if the mechanism to address it isn’t.

Since I can’t solve the holes in Federal law locally, I’ll throw it out there.  If we have to lose Ability to Benefit, can we at least keep the cost of the GED down?